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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What I’m Reading: Thunderstruck and Other Stories

I recently devoured Elizabeth McCracken’s new short story collection, Thunderstruck.  Looking back on what I have read this year, it is definitely in the top 2.  Now, this needs some clarification.  First, I love Elizabeth McCracken. As I mentioned recently in this post, The Giant’s House is one of my all-time favorite books.  Also, over on the Browser’s Corner, I have praised the excellence of her backlist gem of a novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again.

Second, McCracken is up there in my personal list of all time favorite, slightly askew authors [you can go to the readalikes section for a list of the others]. This designation [which I made up] is my favorite type of book.  I can’t get enough of it.  I have created my own personal genre of these type of books.

Third, McCracken, has not has a work of fiction in many years. When McCracken was at the top of her success, she had a terrible miscarriage [in her 9th month of pregnancy].  From that experience she wrote a harrowing but amazing memoir of how she dealt with it all.  Now, McCracken is a mother, wife, and a college professor, oh and she is forever a librarian.

But through it all, she has never lost her touch.  Everything I love about McCracken, can be seen in her logo on her website, here on the right.  Its funny, macabre, and beautiful all rolled into one.

So with all of this love, you can imagine I did not need to know what the stories were about in order to dive into this collection head first, but for those of you who arent McCracken groupies like myself, here is an excellent, succinct run down by Lori L in her Goodreads review:

  • Something Amazing - one mother grieves the loss of her daughter years before while another has two delinquent sons
  • Property - a man moves into a rented house thinking it was furnished with the owner's discarded possessions.
  • Some Terpsichore - an abusive former lover is recalled with nostalgia and pain.
  • Juliet - librarians react to the murder of one of their patrons
  • The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs - a man learns his son has broken his trust
  • Hungry - a woman cares for her granddaughter while her son lies in the hospital
  • The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston - deals with how a memory can be viewed differently by different people
  • Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey - a dying man visits a former friend
  • Thunderstruck - a father and mother struggle to be good parents for their daughter only to then have to deal with the brain injury resulting from her actions

“Thunderstruck" is the show piece story here.  After reading the entire collection, and enjoying each and every story, encountering the best story at the end was fantastic.  But it was also a bit sad because I still wanted more.  However, this was very fitting as the entire mood of this collection could be described as bittersweet, so putting the best story last, helped to sum up the entire collection.

This is the type of book I regularly describe on my blog as “slightly askew.”  Below, in the readalike section you can see all of the books I have described this way, but it happens to be my favorite type of book.  Interestingly, after I read the book, I looked at some professional reviews, and a few used “askew” to also describe these stories. This means her view of the world is a bit macabre, but still realistic.  There is no magical realism here, but it is by no means a straight realistic look at the world you are getting here either.

Like most short stories, these are character centered.  Each story is a small snippet into the lives of her characters.  But what is so amazing about how McCracken writes characters is that even in the shorter format, she is able to create complex characters into whose lives you are completely immersed.   As a result, you are moved by the people and their plights, even when the characters are diametrically opposed to one and other (like the parents in “Thunderstruck”), you are moved by both of them.

These are also briskly paced stories.  Yes, the focus is on character, but the plots and situations are compelling.  No matter their page length, all are quick reads.  The entire collection only took me 3 sittings to read.

Finally, I think that the publisher’s marketing of these stories as all “navigating the space between love and loneliness” is well put.  It captures the bittersweet mood, the odd, in-between space her character are in, and the moving nature of these thought provoking stories which probe the most intimate spaces within our psyches.

Three Words That Describe This Book: slightly askew, character-centered, bittersweet

Readalikes:  The closest collection to this one is Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove which I reviewed here. Although a generation apart, these two women write very similarly.  The only difference is that Russell relies on magical realism to create her slightly askew mood.

Every author or book I have ever described as "slightly askew" fits as a readalike here too. Click here for every instance where I have described a book this way [warning: there are a lot!].  The grandfather of this group [and a mentor of McCracken’s] is Steven Millhauser.  My other top favorites are Kevin Brockmeier and Keith Donohue.

Finally, the fiction of Dan Chaon is also a good readalike. In particular try his short stories collection Stay Awake as a readalike, but anything by him is a good choice.  Here is my review of Await Your Reply [also a Becky all-time favorite].

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